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'Thursday' director thinks it's hip to offend

TORONTO, Ont.--It is uphip to admit to being offended by anything in the new movies, and indeed it's pretty hard to offend me, but a film named "Thursday" crossed the line this week at the Toronto Film Festival. Watching it, I felt outrage. I saw a movie so reprehensible I couldn't rationalize it using the standard critical language about style, genre, or irony. The people associated with it should be ashamed of themselves.

The film is the first work by Skip Woods, a young Texan whose style owes a great deal to Quentin Tarantino, and whose experience of the world seems based on the violent films he recycles and tries to surpass. There is a "plot," but essentially the film is a series of geek-show sequences in which characters are tortured, raped, murdered and dismembered in between passages of sexist and racist language.

Here is a head count: Innocent East Asian female grocery clerk, shot in cold blood after argument over coffee. Black cop, shot dead. Black Rastifarian heroin dealer, plans to kill hero, but is overcome, bound with duct tape ("You guys always call it "duck tape") and hung upside down in garage.

Dominatrix in red leather mini dress enters, tapes hero to chair, rapes him. Her head is blown off in mid-climax by another visitor, who wants drugs and money, and re-tapes hero to chair, preparing to slice him with power saw. Hero will not bleed to death because visitor has brought along propane torch to cauterize wounds ("I once cut on a girl for 16 hours before she died").

Hero frees self, knocks chainsaw man unconscious, hangs him in garage. Cop arrives, is in on the deal, offers to fix everything if money is handed over. Is shown people hanging upside down in garage, shoots them without asking who they are, leaves. In the middle of this carnage, the dominatrix narrates a flashback about dope-smoking black smack dealers who are gunned down by hero and friend, after which black girl enters room and is killed. (A later flashback doubles back to explain that the girl was eight months pregnant.) The dialog is heavy with the n-word and its usual satellites. The n-word is no longer neutralized by being used primarily by blacks, but is used by whites between themselves. I don't object to these events in the abstract (any subject matter can be appropriate for a film), but to their tone. The film expects audiences to process the sad images through filters of irony--it trusts they'll evade a moral response by using a shield of laughter.

The tortured and peculiar festival program notes for "Thursday," written by Noah Cowan, who introduced the film, speak of "a streak of 'white rage'--not racist reaction, but the desperation of those (largely white) newly enriched Americans to preserve their economic place at any cost--and a rigid ethical structure that would please any Talmudic scholar."

I will save the scholar to analyze Cowan's comments themselves. But after seeing "Thursday," I wonder: What are these characters raging about or against? No one's done anything to them. They're the murderers and torturers. Their "economic place" has been attained by selling drugs and stealing. And we will need to call that scholar back in to explain why it is not racist (in this film, and "Very Bad Things," which Cowan also mentions) to blow away virtually every black, Asian or Indian character without, for the most part, establishing them as anything more than nonwhite targets.

In the Q&A session after the screening, the Toronto audience, apparently unshockable, opened by reverently asking Woods the usual boilerplate questions, i.e., "did the actors do a lot of improvisation in the movie?" A woman said, "I've seen women raped in a lot of movies, but I can't recall seeing a man before." Applause, as if the cinematic rape scorecard had been evened. "I think that scene was easier for Paulina than for Tom," Woods said. Laughter. I should have kept my mouth shut. The proper forum for a critic is in a review. But the Q&A session came to a close without a single question that seemed aware of the moral issues raised by the film. I heard myself asking Woods: "Do you have any insights about black people that have not been borrowed from drug movies?"

"I don't think I understand the question," he said.

"How simple can I make it?" I asked, and rephrased it. His answer touched briefly on the fact that "everybody knows" Rastifarians control a lot of the heroin trade ("Well, not all Rastifarians," he amended), and then he went on to explain that, anyway, the black drug dealers were only seen in a flashback narrated by the woman, and we have no way of knowing if her story was true or not. With a hair-splitting evasion like that, Woods should join the Clinton legal team. The fact, of course, is that images on a screen have reality whether or not they are "true."

"Hey, it's your movie," an audience member shouted encouragingly to Woods. But, no, it isn't. Once the director releases a film, it is the audience's movie, to embrace, reject, and think about as it chooses. My revulsion wasn't just about the portrayal of blacks. It was about the cheapness with which all human life was portrayed--and about the movie's confidence that an audience in the age of irony would find it uncool to be offended. There was a passage of dialog midway in this film that was so vile and cruel, I found my temples pounding. Will someone boo or hiss, I wondered? Then came a cheap throwaway laugh line, and the audience gratefully laughed: See, it was all a joke.

One audience member said the movie "blew me away" like Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" (a much better film). Quentin Tarantino is a great director and "Pulp Fiction" was the best film of its year, but he has set loose the junior carrion hounds of Hollywood. They don't understand that it's not what a movie is about, but how it's about it. Tarantino, a master of tone and style, makes movies with an attitude toward risky subject matter; he understands, shapes, and redeems it. The New Geeks make movies that simply exploit it: They make depravity into a standup routine.

Godard said the way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. I am grateful to Skip Woods for one thing. All week I have been grappling with my thoughts about Todd Solondz's "Happiness," the most controversial film at Toronto, Telluride (and Cannes) this year. "Thursday" snapped "Happiness" into perspective for me, helping me to see that Solondz is a genuine artist, that he earns his right to his subject matter by the skill with which he frames it and the thoughtfulness that underlies it.

On the way out of the theater, a woman informed me that I was "a real a------" for speaking out. For her to sit approvingly through "Thursday" and then find my statement offensive provides, I think, a scary measure of her values. Outside in the night air, other audience members caught up with me on the sidewalk and said they agreed with me. They'd been thinking some of the same things, they said. But they hadn't wanted to offend anyone.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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